JIM BREGA

Encounters with Frank Lloyd Wright and Others on a Trip Across America

9/21/2008

Dodging panhandlers and navigating closed streets, finally found our downtown Cleveland hotel. It appears to be in the most deserted section of Cleveland: streets lined with empty storefronts and office towers, early skyscraper period, 100% of which are being reconstructed but with preservationist’s approach. Beautiful architectural details abound. Every office building has a group of four or five smokers standing in front of it taking their cigarette break; they manage somehow to give the impression that they’re the only inhabitants of the buildings, of the city. No one else comes in or goes out while we watch. Overall effect is that Armageddon happened and smokers were the only ones spared.

Main event today was a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, building designed by I.M. Pei. Another pyramid (like his 1984 addition to the Louvre in Paris), most spacious below ground level. Upper floors cramped and almost unusable.

Museum has an interesting collection of costumes displayed on mannequins; their scale suggests that almost every famous Rock performer is four and a half feet tall.

The level of detail on the costumes for bands that routinely play in stadium shows is surprising. Particularly impressive are the hand-camouflaged silver/brown shoes for Aerosmith. Nice stuff for Madonna by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Surprisingly feminine outfits for Jimmy Hendricks: bias ruffles down front, sheer “jacket” over printed shirt, velvet pants. It becomes apparent that a lot of what appears to be “thrown together” onstage is professionally designed and carefully constructed by costume houses.

Overall impression of the R&RHOF is of chaos—not in a creative way—and cold. Had to wear fleece pullover even though it was 70 degrees outside. Main themes seemed to be:

  • R&R grew out of an appropriation of black, country, and western roots by the white market
  • R&R is a product of youthful rebellion that became an iconoclastic art form that flies in the face of conventional society and revels in insult and outrage. Yay!

 

Good Mexican food for dinner at nearly deserted sports bar near hotel.

9/23/2008

Leaving the unimpressive Cleveland Botanical Garden, stumbled across the Frank Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Building which houses the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. Stainless steel roofline suggests a Brobdingnagian-scaled pile of used giftwrap. Tilted brick façade fails to integrate Gehry’s building with those adjoining. Security graciously allowed us to step into the lobby; that was enough to make us feel claustrophobic in spite of what the building’s description calls “a soaring space.” In my opinion, it does not soar. The design is all about the drama of the exterior.

9/24/2008

Left South Bend headed toward Chicago. Initial impression as we approached: smog, congestion, poverty—typical large American city I guess.

Found our way to Oak Park to visit Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio. Wait time: 2 hours, so took the self-guided audio walking tour of the area surrounding the home he lived in from 1889 to 1913 and where he executed 24 commissions. Lots of variety documenting the development of more and more modern ideas. Many stunning examples of design. Especially liked the exterior of the Unity Temple—a Unitarian Universalist church included on the tour. Lots of echoes of Hollyhock House/Olive Hill in LA.

FLW’s home and studio were as usual with his interiors: impressive attention to detail in what ends up feeling like a doll house as a result of cramped spaces and low ceilings. (FLW designed spaces to suit himself, even in clients’ homes. He was 5’8½” tall.) The children’s playroom on the second floor was the only one with a reasonable sense of space, and even that room with its barrel ceiling and elaborate sconces (it doubled as a private theatre) had to be adapted to accommodate his grand piano: the sounding board protrudes through the wall into an adjacent stairwell.

Decorations (capitals, friezes, figural statues) all interesting and emphasizing aspects of truth, knowledge, strength, etc. The octagonal library’s exterior decoration is bands of repeated small octagons, each one rotated x degrees so that the angle of one bisects the straight edge of the next. Ingenious! The floral light screens over the dining room table and in the playroom still anchor the design style firmly in the Victorian period.

Would be remiss if I did not mention that the married Wright had to leave Oak Park because he entered into an affair with the wife of one of his clients.

9/25/2008

Today given over to exploring Chicago on foot, which began in Millennium Park with Frank Gehry’s “serpentine bridge” leading to an outdoor pavilion. A web of metal struts form a roof suspended above the lawn, the seating area for informal performances. Nearby a fountain consisting of two vertical slabs on which faces are projected. Each image eventually spits real water into the fountain.

One fascinating object in the park is Anish Kapoor’s sculpture “Cloud Gate,” which the public has renamed “the bean.” Meticulously constructed, there are no seams, rivets, or other construction clues in its perfect, mirrored stainless steel form.

Enjoyed encountering Picasso and Calder sculptures on public plazas mixed in with the modern office towers; large open spaces planted with lawn, trees, and flowers with Adirondack chairs scattered about—lovely, and everything Cleveland would like to be. Left the city by a much nicer route than that by which we’d arrived.

9/26/2008

Got on the 11am tour of Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Tours of the Wright-designed administration building, still in daily use as Johnson’s world headquarters, and parking garage very tightly regulated, so it’s difficult to roam or examine things too closely… Which didn’t keep a group of 3 French tourists from blithely ignoring the guide’s instructions to stop taking pictures and stop wandering off—a safety issue as a number of the buildings on site are still used by JW for research and light manufacturing. After the tour, the male in the group had to be removed from the industrial area by security guards. He was carrying a small drawing tablet on which I was able to glimpse some nice charcoal sketches before he was hauled away.

 

The  Johnson Wax administration building interior: Smaller than expected, but still impressive. Famed “lily pads” enchant in person as they do in photos.  Impact lessened by major repair being carried out everywhere, especially in lobby/reception. No access to the research tower; closed for retro-fitting to meet modern fire regulations. In general, Wright’s structures still look startlingly modern but somehow lost or out-of-place in juxtaposition with the adjacent manufacturing complex.

One interesting detail: FLW died in 1958, but his firm,Taliesin Associated Architects, was hired to create a structure on the JW grounds to house a small museum and a theatre in which to show the short film “To Be Alive.” Both had originally been created for the Johnson Wax pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, and I remember seeing it there when my family drove cross-country to attend. Hard to believe that was almost 45 years ago!

Unfortunately, the building created in Racine by Taliesin Associates was uninteresting: a box with the original saucer of the theatre plopped on top of it.

On to Taliesin!

9/27/2008

There’s a category of restaurant that Wisconsonites refer to as a “supper club;” this revealed to us by the desk clerk at the Motel 8 in Kenosha, near Racine, in answer to the question, “Where’s a good place to eat around here?” After declining her first two suggestions—Pizza Hut, McDonalds—we were offered the elegant-sounding third alternative. It conjured memories of Astaire/Rogers movies, or one of the episodes of “I Love Lucy” in which she manages to talk herself into the show at Ricky’s club. Was it possible that some version of club culture, circa 1930, survived among the Wisconsin dairy farms? We had to go.

It turns out that a supper club, Wisconsin-style, is a restaurant that serves steaks and fish and has a bar. And, if you ignore the brown lettuce in the salad, the brown skin on the lime in the watered-down gin and tonics, the saltine cracker appetizers served with “spread” (cream cheese mixed with chives), and the cigarette-smoke-saturated interior still sporting last year’s Christmas decorations, it is pretty elegant despite lacking a floor show. We had some language problems negotiating our order. Me to waitress: “How is the fish cooked?” Waitress to me, “I don’t know.” Several seconds of blank stares pass between us. Waitress: “Would you like me to find out?” The mahi-mahi, grilled, turned out to be quite good.

9/28/2008

We had a reservation for the 10:15 Taliesin tour this morning. The bus driver had to be at least 80. Our guide was Melinda, great granddaughter of the owner of the lumber mill that provided FLW with much of the materials used in building Taliesin.

Tour started at what had been a boarding school run by FLW’s two aunts, now part of the still-operating school for architecture. I can’t add much to the many photos and words already produced in re: these buildings, except to say that there was wood rot and deterioration everywhere.

To experience the house was thrilling, overlooking the usual discomfort of low ceilings. Rooms were more expansive than usual; the views of the Wisconsin countryside were outstanding. There’s little colored glass incorporated into the leaded windows as it’s not needed to enhance the experience. Overall, successfully evokes the spirit of an Italian villa, influenced by FLW’s visit to Italy.

Here is one place where FLW’s interest in integration with Nature is apparent. Taliesin (Welsh for “shining brow”) is situated just below the top of the hill on which it’s built, so that from the back garden the house is invisible. It’s a wonderful effect. Also wonderful: the integration of Asian art—screens, rugs, ceramics, etc. Not so wonderful: the overly close supervision during the tour that prevented us from pausing to admire or absorb much of the exterior.

One anecdote from tour guide: FLW designed furniture for all of his interiors—including Taliesin—that was famously uncomfortable. Late in life, fed up, he reportedly complained, “I am tortured by my own furniture!” He eventually replaced the chairs in the sitting-rooms at Taliesin with over-stuffed armchairs from a Chicago department store.

Note: all of what we see today at Taliesin, with the exception of Wright’s studio, is the result of a re-building following a murderous 1914 arson attack by a deranged employee. His studio, with all his letters and plans, was saved from the flames by his injured foreman. His mistress, for whom he had built the place, her two children, and a dozen employees were all brutally murdered. Wright himself was not present during the attack.

9/29/2008

Arrived in Rapid City, SD in preparation for visit to Mt. Rushmore. Stopped for lunch—enticed by highway signs seemingly every quarter mile for the last 300 miles—in Mitchell, SD, home of the Corn Palace. A real tribute to kitsch, exterior of the building completely covered in decoration made from various varieties and colors of corn. Reminds one of the style often referred to as tramp art.

Notes from the road (so far):

Best gas station name: Kum & Go

Best business sign (painted 3 ft. high): 24-hour Toe Service

We spent all of Monday at Mt. Rushmore National Park. The Black Hills scenery is spectacular, especially numerous stone fingers that stick up—not sure whether due to earthquake or volcanic activity followed by erosion. The sculpture itself is much more impressive than I thought it would be, and can be approached via a trail/boardwalk that goes to the base of the debris pile. Twists and turns provide different views of specific heads. Biggest surprise was seeing lines suggesting spectacles on TR, only because I’d never noticed them before.

In a small clearing about halfway along the trail, a Native American park service employee had a hide from a recently butchered buffalo staked out. She was explaining how every part of the animal was used by NA hunters.

  • Un-tanned hide dried hard and could be used to make storage boxes
  • Un-tanned tail used as fly swatter
  • Hollow horn became drinking cup, powder horn, or container to carry fire from one camp to the next
  • Ligaments were dried, pulled apart into sinews, and used for laces or ties
  • Hollow hooves were hung on strips outside of teepee for use as a “doorbell”
  • Ribs were used as sled runners; other bones as tool handles, scrapers, etc.
  • Tanned hides were used for clothing, teepee covers, rugs, etc.

 

9/30/2008

Here’s an example of exactly what I hoped to encounter when we set off on this trip: in the middle of nowhere we saw an exit sign for Devil’s Tower National Monument, and took an unplanned turn. 30 minutes later we were at the tower, which is 1250 feet in elevation and soars 820 feet above the visitor’s center. According to geologists, the tower was formed by streams of molten igneous rock flowing through granite tubes and forming 5-, 6-, or 7-sided crystals. 50 million years of erosion have left the tower free of the softer surrounding layers of soil and stone.

Best advertising sign in Jackson Hole, WY: Hole Juice

Best business sign in Utah: Pop Food Worms

 

10/11/2008

We arrive at Taliesin West near Scottsdale, AZ in time for our noon tour. The attitude among the guides is much more relaxed than it had been at Taliesin East; we’re invited to take pictures both inside and out during the tour.

The buildings were again built just below the top of a hill, with a beautiful view for many miles across the desert…interrupted by electrical towers and power lines that run across the property. These were installed during FLW’s lifetime, and so frustrated him that he raised the height of the windows in the rooms facing the lines so that they aren’t visible when sitting in the rooms.

FLW’s concept for TW was that it is a camp. Although the buildings cover an estimated 45,000 square feet and are built of stone and concrete (it’s said he wanted to use materials that wouldn’t burn), many ceilings are canvas. At TW, the concrete that was one of his favored building materials is readily visible as mortar between large local boulders. FLW treated the local rocks, some with prehistoric petroglyphs, as centerpieces or totems, and placed them near the entrances to the buildings, much as he used sophisticated cast concrete planters in his commercial and residential projects.

 

Overall sense is of rusticity, whether by intent and developing temperament or because of lack of money for more sophisticated buildings.

While FLW was alive, he initiated the tradition of spending the spring and summer at Taliesin East and the fall and winter at Taliesin West. The entire household, including the students in the architecture school, would move as well, and would provide most of the labor that went into building Taliesin West.

10/13/2008

We had an appropriate welcome to California this morning: an earthquake. It made me think about our visit a few days ago to Chaco Canyon, an extensive prehistoric building complex in the middle of the New Mexico desert. One of the large structures we saw there had been designated as unstable by the National Park Service. They’d made the decision not to shore it up, to let nature take its course. Though today’s quake was nowhere near the canyon, the NPS policy makes me wonder about how we value things. Would we let Taliesin West fall if it were threatened? The prehistoric architects of Chaco Canyon were just as skilled, in their own way, as FLW’s students, yet we might value their work less because we don’t know who they were or why they built. On the other hand, maybe the NPS is right: we shouldn’t interfere with natural processes. Everything man creates is someday likely to fall, or be replaced.

We’d set off from Farmington, NM on 10/9, having spent the night in the Days Inn on the edge of town. Like all the motels in Farmington, its parking lot is surrounded by a 10-foot chain link fence with coiled razor wire on top. Signs warn against leaving valuables in the car, so we’d moved all the computer equipment, cameras, etc. from the back of the Escape to our room.

We easily found the obscure turn-off, soon passed on to the 13 miles of dirt road leading to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. As the driver, I struggled initially with the eroded, washboard road. I thought we might have to travel the whole way at 20mph with the car heaving violently from side to side and front to back, but after being passed by a small sedan doing about 45 and seeing his wheels bouncing like time-lapse yo-yos, we realized that the secret is to drive fast, so that the wheels don’t sink into the 4-inch ruts but bounce from the top of one to the top of the next. This is a really exciting way to travel; with little tire contact with the ground, steering is nearly useless. After a few minutes my hands were cramped from gripping the steering wheel and I was sweaty all over. John and I took turns seeing who could scream the loudest as we flew around curves hoping we wouldn’t meet any cars coming the other way. At least we were now travelling at about 40mph and making good time.

 

According to the NPS, Chaco Canyon hosts the densest and most exceptional concentration of pueblos in the southwest. Nobody knows who the builders were or why they chose to build there, though the structures’ alignment with astronomical phenomena suggests, as it does at Stonehenge, that it may have some religious significance. Analysis of trash piles suggests that no one actually lived in the main complex. There are 50 or so small settlements scattered across the valley nearby—possibly caretakers. The Chetro Ketl site, combined with Pueblo Bonito next to it, formed the “downtown” section of the city. The structures were built using sandstone quarried from the top of the surrounding canyon walls, presumably because it’s harder and more durable than the sandstone at lower elevations. The builders were highly sophisticated and skilled and obviously observed a rigid aesthetic, even though they had only stone tools to work with. Right-angled shapes (exterior corners, windows, doors, etc.) were extremely precise, though circles (kivas) were more approximate. Logs for roof supports (some 2 feet in diameter) were brought to the site from 20 to 60 miles away.

 

The complexes were built in a “D” shape, with the curved wall enclosing a plaza. There are few petroglyphs, distinguishing the culture from that of the Pueblos. The whole place seems to have been constantly expanded and remodeled. There are no explanations for why the site was abandoned in about 1250 AD; one speculation is that the highly structured society that would have been required to construct it over 300 years was torn apart by some sort of political strife. Seeing the craftsmanship, sophistication, and ingenuity of the builders, it’s difficult to understand why they never felt the need to develop a written language (unlike Aztec and Inca civilizations shortly after) that could have helped us understand them. Similar “Great Houses” are scattered across an estimated 60K square miles of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. My feeling is that this was a civilization that rivaled the size and power of Mexican pre-Columbian civilizations, but because of the lack of a written language we know almost nothing about it.

 

One example of foresight employed at Taliesin West that the Chacoans never thought of: the deep eaves and covered walkways of TW prevent the drifting sand from penetrating the interiors of the rooms. Most of what is visible at Chaco Canyon today has been reclaimed from the sand by archeologists and others, but every day the desert is doing everything in its power to cover it up again.

 

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